Are amazing fresh-hop beers the product of luck or skill?
For the most part, I've come to believe in luck. While the best fresh-hop beers are magical, most tend to be defined mostly by their grassiness. That's because crisp green cones fresh off the bine are far less predictable than kiln-dried hops, introducing odd compounds that are often unpleasantly vegetal and occasionally downright weird.
But the story behind the best Oregon fresh-hop beer of the last year, Baerlic's Hellsner, makes me question whether those great fresh-hop beers are just serendipitous. Rather, co-owners and co-brewers Ben Parsons and Rik Hall, two childhood friends from Boise, make a compelling case for the old-fashioned idea that great things happen when brewers take a rigorous approach to controlling variables.
That starts with the hop processing. Most fresh-hop beers are made with hops torn roughly from the bine and sold off the brewers before going through the machines that clean up the extra leaves and dehydrate them.
"Instead of just getting a box of hops from somebody, we actually pick through the hops and make sure that we're getting just the hops—no stems, no seeds, no sticks," says Hall. "We'll spend an extra hour or two picking through the cones to pull out the leaves."
"Even browned hops—on the edges of the fields they get more sun and more wind and so they get dried out—we take them out, because we're looking for the best of the best," says Parsons.
"We pick out all the stuff that could make it bad," says Hall. "We look at every step and say, like, 'OK, what could go wrong?'"
Nothing went wrong with their fresh-hop hellsner, whose crisp, crackery malt backbone was set off by lightly floral and spicy Santiam hops from Gayle Goschie's century-old family farm in Silverton. Santiam is the Willamette Valley's answer to noble German Tettnanger and Hallertau, and brought a lot to this lager, which used a bittering charge of normal hops before being cold lagered and then dry-hopped with fresh hops, in what's quickly becoming the preferred way of working with freshies.
"The first year we did fresh-hop beer it was all on the hot side. And the next year we went away from that, because of the process," says Parsons. "We didn't want to completely change a brew-day schedule on the fly, and move a racking day schedule on the fly."
Even on the cold side, the Baerlic brewers say that if they leave the fresh hops in contact with the beer for too long the results can be suboptimal—as they were with a pale ale they say was dry-hopped for "just eight hours too long."
"It's a tipping point," Parsons says. "Typically, it's two or two-and-a-half days. This one was four-plus days. You keep tasting it, morning noon and night. We would stay late and then come in early. I was coming in two hours early to taste it. It's this OCD thing, you're trying to figure out where it's going to go."
"We're seeing how it's evolving and imagining how much flavor is packed in the hop bag," Hall says. "At that point, we're winging it."
But winging it at the end—you can argue there's luck involved—is a lot different from dumping a bunch of cones and leaves in the kettle and hoping for the best. At least when it came to this spectacular fresh-hopped lager.
"That was the third time we made a Helles and I think we nailed the entire balance of the beer and it was a fresh hop," Parsons says. "That was all we drank until it was gone."